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Voters awash in robocalls

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

(The Greenville News)Direct Link http://www.greenvilleonline.com/article/20120117/NEWS03/301170063


Listen to the campaign calls

Script-reading people you’ve never heard of, and some you have, are glutting residential voicemail with a wash of late-stage pleas, attacks and counterpunches on behalf of presidential candidates who are racing to tilt undecided South Carolina voters in their favor.

Among other things, the calls telegraph a Mitt Romney effort to undercut Rick Santorum’s popularity in the Upstate, while Ron Paul is ripping rivals in all directions.

A popular tactic: invoking the name of Sen. Jim DeMint, whose decision not to endorse has left room for interpretation.

If the opinions of voters and political strategists are any indication, the wave of political calls may have long exceeded the point of diminishing returns.

Some Greenville homes have received more than a dozen political calls from the Mitt Romney campaign alone; some have heard nothing.

Paul is blasting Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, while Santorum’s daughter has put out her own call for support.

One Paul caller rips Santorum for supporting the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s “Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act” and tries to pit him against DeMint. In its lone robocall, the Santorum campaign stays positive:

“So sorry I missed you,” his daughter says, and goes on to cite her dad’s “conservative values.”

Nellie Wagoner said she suffers all day long because her home phone forwards to her cell phone. A telephone interview Tuesday followed close on the heels of two lunchtime political calls, and her wariness was audible. The night before, there were five in short order.

“I don’t want somebody trying to sway me or tell me something,” said Wagoner, a real estate broker and member of the Republican Women’s Club. “How we can stop them, I don’t know.”

Unlike TV ads and glossy mail fliers, the robocalls are harder to ignore, but there is a way: Pick up the phone, turn off the voicemail or engage in some of the emerging online tactics such as reverse robocalling.

Anti-robocall activist Shaun Dakin, CEO of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, told GreenvilleOnline.com that South Carolina is among the states that bans automated phone dialing, but that many states simply don’t enforce the law, preferring to let federal law and its Do Not Call list take precedence.

But political calls are explicitly exempted from the federal code.

That changed in Indiana, when Dakin said a Republican attorney general decided to enforce state law that bans robocalls, effectively ending them in a nonpartisan fashion.

However, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said his office’s interpretation of the state statute makes a robocall that’s answered by a live person illegal — but a message left in voicemail within the law.

That could be the reason Wagoner and other voters will occasionally pick up the phone only to hear a series of clicks, then static. Leave the phone untouched, and the voicemail fills up with voices, some southern-sounding and earnest, others urgent and stern.

Robocalls are hard to track, said the attorney general’s spokesman, Mark Plowden, but he said the law has been enforced in recent years.

At issue is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to get a message to voters.

One acquaintence told Dr. Robert Oldendick, a political science professor and director of the Survey Research Laboratory at the University of South Carolina, that the next call he gets will be from the candidate he’s not voting for.

It’s one thing to get two or three; it’s quite another to field a dozen or more.

Wesley Donehue, a Republican consultant who formerly advised Michele Bachmann’s campaign in South Carolina, said his advice would be to limit calls to two per week.

“They’re very attractive to campaigns because you can deliver those messages cheaper with robocalls than any other medium,” Donehue said. “And you can deliver messages faster.”

When Jon Huntsman quit the race this week and endorsed Romney, for example, Donehue said there was no better way to let voters know. A robocall could be done within hours — much faster than producing a TV ad or printing a mailer.


Romney appears to be swamping other campaigns in terms of volume, but they could end up being too much of a good thing, from a campaign standpoint, said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist not aligned with any presidential campaign.

“They are certainly not leaving any stones unturned,” Felkel said. “But you do have to wonder at some point whether or not you start depressing folks who are ready to say, ‘To hell with this.’ ”

“It is very annoying,” said Wagoner. “I’d like to talk to him one time face to face.”

Repeated attempts to contact the Romney campaign on the issue were unsuccessful.

Dakin operates a kind of nonprofit do-not-call list with which political campaigns can voluntarily agree to cooperate. No one in South Carolina has taken him up on the idea, though he said about 30 politicans elsewhere have.

He also operates a for-profit business that tries to turn the tables by robocalling politicians. One option allows users to record a personal message and send it to all the Republican presidential hopefuls.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the calls don’t work on voters, Dakin said, but when it comes to politics, a counter-movement is hard because everyone knows the calls will end soon — in this case, by Saturday.

Oldendick said the calls are unlikely to peel off committed supporters of a candidate, while there’s a real risk that for the undecided population — candidates’ real target — too many calls will turn them off.

Meanwhile, Romney’s repeated attacks on Santorum likely mean that internal polling reveals the candidate sneaking up on Romney, Donehue said.

“There’s no other reason for him to do that.”

Romney may be trying to simply win by as large a margin as possible, for momentum and inevitability reasons, Felkel said.

He recalls a probing question the legendary political operative and South Carolina son Lee Atwater used to ask:

“OK, so they’re for you,” Atwater would say. “But are they for ya?”

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